In honor of radicals

Andy Fitzgerald writes: America has a propensity for dismissing people and ideas with labels. Terms like “socialist” and “communist” are frequently hurled at those who dare to promote substantial programs that address poverty, or suggest that government provide what many other “developed nations” deem fundamental services – like universal healthcare. Anyone who openly identifies with such positions is assumed to have nothing legitimate to contribute to public debate, irrespective of the plausibility, merit, and true ideology informing their arguments.

It’s a similar scenario with “radical” – a word often used to evoke associations with extremism, instability and an absolutist approach to politics. But the popular usage belies the important role many radicals have played in promoting democracy and justice throughout history, not to mention the continued role radical ideas and activism have to play in unfinished projects.

A recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune illustrates the common abuse of the term in the media. The columnist, Dennis Byrne, rightly criticizes a tendency in America to privilege individual liberty over community solidarity, but he then attempts a “balanced” perspective by presenting examples of “radicalism” on both sides of the aisle. On abortion, Byrne writes: “Radical individuals on the right and the left demand the supremacy of a woman’s body. … For [those who are pro-choice], a woman’s rights are nearly absolute.”

Squaring the false equivalence circle he adds: “Similar absolutist views are held on the right by those who interpret the Constitution’s Second Amendment to mean that government regulation of firearms should be extraordinarily limited, if not nonexistent.”

But the mischaracterization of radicals extends beyond mainstream media and politics. While discussing feminist activism with several friends, one retorted, “there are radicals in every group”. I challenged the presumption that radicals were inherently a liability to social movements, given the positive history of radicalism in America.

Indeed, it was “radicals” who were responsible for sowing the seeds of two of America’s most important social movements: worker rights and racial justice. The labor movement, in its nascent days, was a radical movement. A confrontational approach to management was necessary to win many of the concessions now sorely taken for granted: the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, even the very possibility of forming a union.[Continue reading…]

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